Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: The “Drown the Cat” Intro in “The Hunger Games”

The late Blake Snyder wrote three great books of writing advice that are still widely disseminated today, but I have a problem with his central piece of advice, that heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they “Save the Cat.”

“The Hunger Games” takes a different path. Let’s look at the third paragraph:

  • Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

I guess you could say she saves a cat…from her own murderous impulses. But she still describes her as disgustedly as she possibly can!

Why do we like this nasty heroine? In the parlance of my book, we believe, care and invest:

  • Believe: This one paragraph does a great job showing a consistent worldview. Every word is colored by a very unique way of seeing the world. She doesn’t seem like an accumulation of author-imposed traits. She seems like a fully-realized human.
  • Care: She’s suffering and doing what she can to survive. If she was living a comfortable life in the suburbs, we would hate her for wanting to kill a cat, but seeing her hunger, our heart goes out to her. We wonder what we would do.
  • Invest: We definitely trust her to solve whatever challenges this book offers. She’s bad-ass, and she’s ready to make hard decisions.

Don’t worry, Katniss does get a chance to kill a cat a few pages later:

  • Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

All of this cat killing, ironically sets us up for her one big moment of selflessness later. If Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games because she was a super-nice person, we wouldn’t buy it. It’s only because she’s so vicious that it’s believable and compelling.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Annotation Project: The Hunger Games

Well folks, I didn’t get any non-bot comments on two weeks of “Gone Girl” pieces. I’ve always been reluctant to do books due to my fear that nobody actually reads, and that suspicion feels like it’s being confirmed. Let’s do one more book, see if anybody responds, then see where we’re going from there.  UPDATE: As requested, here’s a link to a downloadable Word file.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: Starting in Their Heads Instead of With Dialogue in “Gone Girl”

As a general rule, you want to resist the urge to have characters tell us a lot about themselves before we get to hear them have an actual conversation out loud. This is because the audience knows to distrust whatever people say about their own personalities. Anyone can tell you about how nice and charming they are, but it’s only when we hear them engage in conversation with someone else that we get to judge that for ourselves, which is what readers want to do.

“Gone Girl” breaks this rule, but it does so for good reason: Neither of Flynn’s two heroes is very appealing in real life. This is a really brave thing to do, writing about people who are pretty, shallow, and clever-but-not-as-clever-as-they-think-they-are. After all, shallow people are people too, and they too deserve books. So Flynn begins both Nick and Amy’s sections by letting them speak directly to us, giving us their versions of their lives. They’re trying to make themselves sound good, and not entirely succeeding.

Interestingly, she has one good chance to give us some dialogue, when they have breakfast together, and she doesn’t. Instead we just get this description:

  • Amy was in the kitchen, oblivious to my hesitation. She was humming something melancholy and familiar. I strained to make it out – a folk song? a lullabye? – and then realized it was the theme to M.A.S.H. Suicide is painless. I went downstairs.
  • I hovered in the doorway, watching my wife. Her yellow-butter hair was pulled up, the hank of ponytail swinging cheerful as a jumprope, and she was sucking distractedly on a burnt fingertip, humming around it. She hummed to herself because she was an unrivaled botcher of lyrics. When we were first dating, a Genesis song came on the radio: ‘She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah.’ And Amy crooned instead, ‘She takes my hat and puts it on the top shelf.’ When I asked her why she’d ever think her lyrics were remotely, possibly, vaguely right, she told me she always thought the woman in the song truly loved the man because she put his hat on the top shelf. I knew I liked her then, really liked her, this girl with an explanation for everything.
  • There’s something disturbing about recalling a warm memory and feeling utterly cold.
  • Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell like berries and powdered sugar.
  • When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
  • Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.
  • I was very late getting to work […]

This is the only modern day scene with the two of them together until the end of the book, and they don’t get any real dialogue. It’s a shocking decision. We do get a warm moment between the two here, but it’s his memory of a warm moment, not one in real time. We don’t hear what they’re actually saying other than one line.

Why not give us what we want here? Because Flynn wants us to spend the first half of the book unable to determine who’s right about their relationship, but if she gave them a substantial conversation here, we would have enough information to make a more informed decision about their personalities and relationship, and she doesn’t want that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Straying from the Party Line: The Unreliable Narrator Fake-Out in “Gone Girl”

Another trend recently is the increase of unreliable narrators. In “Gone Girl”, Gillian Flynn takes advantage of this trend in a clever way: She plays with us by letting us assume that her narrator is more unreliable than he actually is. The fact that our narrator is isn’t lying to us (much) turns out to be a big twist!

One of the most famous unreliable narrators of all time is to be found in Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. At the beginning of that story, our narrator, Dr. Sheppard, tells us of the day of the murder, then about his experiences “assisting” Hercule Poirot is solving it. Only at the end, after Poirot has solved it, does Sheppard admit to the reader that he left out some key information: He committed the murder himself.

Flynn encourages us to treat her co-hero Nick as a modern-day Dr. Sheppard. We begin with the words “Nick Dunne, the Day of” then we get his first person tale of that day, but we instantly wonder if he’s just skipping over the part where he kills her.

Obviously, as an author, this is a very dangerous game. Usually, your whole job is to get us to fully bond with your hero, to share his POV, to know what he knows, to wonder about the same things he wonders about, to trust him to solve the challenge that we want him to solve.  Flynn is doing the opposite. She’s encouraging us to distrust our hero, to assume that he knows more than he’s saying. We suspect that he won’t really try to solve the mystery we want solved: What happened to his wife?

Flynn isn’t going to reveal until halfway through that Amy is still alive, so how does she fill our time with Nick while she’s encouraging us to suspect him? Amy has created a mystery for Nick to solve: a scavenger hunt. We suspect that he’s trying to solve it idly after killing her, rather than genuinely trying to solve it to look for clues to her disappearance, which is the truth.

By choosing to play this game, Flynn is limiting her own options. She can’t show us anything, or have him think anything, that would make it clear that he isn’t guilty. What a fiendish thing to do to herself! It’s amazing that she keeps it interesting. Cutting to Amy’s diary helps. We identify more with her than him, wondering along with her if he intends to (which is to say, already has) hurt her.

Flynn does gratify our suspicion that he’s an unreliable narrator a bit when he admits to us that he has been eliding part of the story: that he’s having an affair. Ironically, it’s when he admits this to us that we really begin to suspect that’s all he’s lying about.

What about you? Did you suspect Nick? When did you stop suspecting him? Do you think the trick was worth the effort it obviously took for Flynn to pull it off?

Sunday, December 03, 2017

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation: Take Any Writing Job (And Two Rulebook Casefiles)

 Gillian Flynn doesn’t have an MFA. From a profile in Elle:
  • Knowing she wanted to be a writer but too practical—self-effacing, as well—to apply to an MFA program, the de rigueur move for an East or West Coaster with similar preoccupations, she applied to journalism school instead. Claiming novelist as your ambition sounded, in her words, "Mmm, yeah, a little…lofty." She thought she'd become a crime reporter, combine her love of words with her love of sex and death. Only, as it turned out, she had, of all things, a squeamish side, which effectively put the kibosh on a career covering the mean streets. So after graduating from Northwestern, she moved to New York and took a job with Entertainment Weekly. At EW she could be up to her eyeballs in kiss kiss bang bang, but kiss kiss bang bang at a remove, safely confined to the screen, dissipating once the credits rolled and the lights came up. She stayed on staff for 10 years, writing about movies and TV.
If you imagine yourself as a great novelist, then writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly (not even the New Yorker!) might seem like too much of a comedown, but for Flynn, it was the apprenticeship she needed. What’s a huge part of writing reviews? Coining unique adjectives and similes! You don’t want to say, “I liked it because it was good.” You want to say what it was like.

Every writing job gets you writing, and the more manipulation of words you do, the more facility you’ll have.  If you must get a graduate degree, do what Flynn did and get a journalism degree.  Unlike MFAs, journalists learn to write on deadline, listen to real speech, and crystalize it into just the most interesting bits.

This leads us to two Rulebook Casefiles: Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself and Tap Into Real Life National Pain.

Of course, the problem with the advice I’m giving you is that these jobs are now much fewer and farther between than they used to be. But of course that change is a big part of this novel. Flynn has gifted her backstory to her character Nick, and by doing so, she’s tapped into a real source of national pain: the death of a huge sector of the economy due to the rise of the online space, culminating in a total wipeout with the 2008 crash.

Indeed, I learned a lot about writing by writing reviews but I was part of the problem: I gave away my reviews for free on this blog. I would have loved to have made the jump to writing paid reviews, but nobody was hiring because the magazines were failing because they couldn’t compete with free content like mine!

Flynn knew her pain was real, and widely shared, and that she could bestow it upon her character to make him real, and more meaningful. Giving your own life away is the greatest gift you can give your characters (And then, once you gift them your real past, you craft a present that is more interesting than your actual present. You don’t want to get too realistic.)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Storyteller's Rulebook: Coin Unique Similes

People read “Gone Girl” for the crackerjack thriller plot, but there are dozens of clever thrillers published every year. Why did this become such a phenomenon? Because the actual writing is also pretty great. The book makes great use of language.

It’s hard to write unique similes. In our actual lives we fall back on familiar similes as much as possible, so it’s believable enough when your characters do that, but your readers don’t want to read that. Familiar similes are stultifying to readers. They’re a waste of space. Readers crave unique similes, even if it’s not entirely realistic that your narrator would be coining them.

  • Nick begins the book by rhapsodizing about Amy’s head, which is “Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil”
  • He says of Amy and his mother: “Their few meetings had left them both baffled. Amy would dissect the conversations for days after – ‘And what did she mean by …,’ – as if my mother were some ancient peasant tribeswoman arriving from the tundra with an armful of raw yak meat and some buttons for bartering, trying to get something from Amy that wasn’t on offer.”
  • He mentions “an Eisenhower-era linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast”

Is it entirely believable that Nick would come up with such unique similes? He is, after all, a writer. Granted, he’s a retired “Entertainment Weekly” writer, but so is Flynn. If she can come up with these, so could he.

Last time, I praised how different their voices are, well here’s another example: Her similes aren’t as good. She was, after all, a personality quiz author, not a reviewer. She says things like “Like some sort of feral love jackal”. One of her better attempts is “adopted orphan smile”, but then she brags about how good it is, ruining the goodwill that she built up.

(The book also does a great job with unique adjectives, like “thick afternoon naps” and “fish-white feet”)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Rulebook Casefile: Different POVs with Different Voices in “Gone Girl”

I talked last time about how I’m not a fan of including lots of third-person POV characters, so it’ll be no surprise that I’m not generally a fan of multiple first-person POVs. You know that I’ve always been a fan of having one hero for the audience to totally bond with.

If Suzy is wondering what’s going on in Bob’s head, then I want to stay with Suzy and bond with her as she tries to figure Bob out, I don’t want to briefly jump into Bob’s head to find out what Suzy will never know.

But if you have to do it, “Gone Girl” is a beautiful example of a multiple first-person POV novel done right:
  • It has a reason to exist: This is the story of a poisonous marriage, viewed though two radically different points of view with radically different facts. Either POV would be insufficient to tell this story. It’s richer for having both. This isn’t a case where we have the hero and an additional POV, the two are given equal weight. The interplay of the two POVs is more interesting than either on its own.
  • It’s careful to let us know exactly where we are at all times, beginning each chapter with the name of the narrator and where we are in the timeline.
  • It actually gives Nick and Amy genuinely different voices. The biggest risk in having multiple POVs is that the reader won’t be reading closely and miss the jump entirely. There’s no risk of that here. After six pages of his bitter, wistful, depressed, regretful, self-lacerating voice, looking back on their wreckage of a relationship, we jump to her chirpy, manic, needy, optimistic voice, looking forward to the sure-to-be-great relationship to come. Her first line is something he would never say “Tra and la!” 
  • And yet both voices are sympathetic, albeit in very different ways. We bond with both, to a certain extent, though we also look down on each (he for being a loser, her for being na├»ve)
Next we’ll talk about how even their similes are different...

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Annotation Project: Gone Girl

Alright, Harry Potter worked well, so let’s do an adult book this time. Obviously, I’m trying to stick to books everybody has read (or at least seen the movie). If you’ve done neither, be warned that I will spoil the story here. As usual, I’ll have a lot more to say about these pages over the next two weeks.  Once again, I apologize for the less than ideal presentation here, making you click on each of these (in a way that doesn't really work on phones).  It’s bizarre that Blogger doesn’t offer the option of images the same size as their column size.  Any ideas for a better way to present these?  (I offered a Word download last week.  Should I do that again?  Did anybody actually do that? UPDATE: Here it is.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Harry Potter: The Archive

I’m all ready to go with the next book, but it’s Thanksgiving week, so I figured I would just wrap up for this week with a review of all the Harry Potter pieces I’ve written over the years.
Last week I annotated the first twenty pages of Harry Potter and wrote a series of posts about what we can learn from those pages:

But Ive written a lot about Harry over the years.  Most infamously, I did my Harry Potter Meddler Week:
But Ive also written lots of other posts about Harry over the years: